September 29, 2021

Trickster is a word used to describe a type of supernatural figure that appears in the folklore of various cultures around the world. In Canada, the word has been popularized by anthropologists studying the role of these figures in Indigenous teachings and oral histories. Indigenous peoples call tricksters by their own names, such as Glooscap or Glooskap (Algonquian), Wisakedjak or Weesageechak (Cree), and Nanabush or Nanabozho (Anishinaabe). While Indigenous nations construct tricksters in their own ways, there are some cross-cultural similarities. Often considered cultural heroes, tricksters are credited with protecting (and in some cases, creating) human life. As their name suggests, however, tricksters are also associated with rule-breaking. They are curious pranksters who frequently cross and challenge boundaries, as well as ignore social harmony and order. For generations, trickster stories have been used to entertain community members as well as to transmit traditional knowledge about society, culture, and morality.

A common characteristic is that tricksters are foolish and childlike troublemakers. Some are harmless, while others are malevolent. Tricksters like Nanabush and Wisakedjak are considered heroes. Both are powerful and wise leaders who sometimes get into trouble and play jokes on humans. By contrast, tricksters like Napi are sometimes depicted as selfish and cruel.

Another key defining feature of tricksters is that they wander, spiritually and physically. They often travel between the spirit world and the tangible world as well as the areas in-between. During these travels, some tricksters, such as Raven and Coyote, alter their shape, manifesting as powerful, sacred beings, animals, inanimate objects (such as rocks and trees) and humans. In these cases, tricksters are also referred to in the literature as transformers or shape-shifters.

There are a wide variety of trickster figures in Indigenous cultures in Canada. The following are a few examples of tricksters from various parts of the country.

Among the Cree, Wisakedjak is an adventurous and humorous trickster, afforded prestige as a teacher to humankind. Wisakedjak is also rebellious. According to one story, he disobeyed the Creator, who asked Wisakedjak to keep the animals and humans from quarrelling. The result was the Creator’s flooding of the world, to begin life anew. While Wisakedjak played a role in the remaking of the world, some oral histories indicate that the Creator reduced his powers, leaving him with only the ability to flatter and deceive. Other stories reveal that Wisakedjak always had great powers and was responsible for creating the moon and other elements of our world.

Nanabush from the Ojibwe traditions is a half-human, half-spirit figure that appears in creation stories and is greatly respected and revered as a hero among various Anishinaabe peoples. Nanabush could change forms and often did so to play tricks on people. According to some tales, Nanabush is also described as two-spirited.

The Métis also have tales about Wisakedjak and Nanabush, as well as another trickster — Chi-Jean — described by some as a cousin or close friend of the other two. The travels and adventures of Chi-Jean, featured in various oral histories as well as a series of graphic novels for youth, seek to teach about Métis culture and the connection between humans and the earth.

Glooscap, huge in size and power, features in many stories of various Algonquian-speaking nations, such as the Mi’kmaq and Abenaki. Glooscap is said to have created natural features such as the Annapolis Valley, in the process often having to overcome his evil twin brother who wanted rivers to be crooked and mountains impassable.

Raven is an important trickster in the cultures of various Northwest Coast Indigenous peoples. Appearing in origin stories and other tales, Raven is valued as a guardian spirit. The Haida, Tlingit, and Tsimshian have moieties (a type of kinship group) named for this figure. Raven also appears in Inuit stories, as does cultural hero Kiviuq. Described as a powerful wanderer and shaman, Kiviuq goes on many adventures, from tricking a hungry bear to kayaking through dangerous waters to encountering a giant bumblebee.

On the Prairies, the Siksika tell stories about Napi the trickster. Possessing great powers, Napi is credited by some Siksika people with creating the world and life within it. However, Napi is also foolish and can be cruel. Many stories describe him as possessing deceptive and destructive powers. In some Prairie and West Coast Indigenous tales, Napi is accompanied by another trickster: Coyote. Usually described as a pesky thief, Coyote is also a healer that received this special power from the Creator. Historically, trickster stories have served a variety of roles, from entertaining community members to transmitting traditional knowledge to teaching about right from wrong. Trickster stories illustrate the centrality of relationships between family members, clans, and nations while highlighting the tension between individual motivations and those of the larger social group. In bending the structures of society, tricksters reveal (and occupy) a realm in between those structures, one that demonstrates how social norms can be challenged, redefined, and overturned.1

  1. 2021. Trickster | The Canadian Encyclopedia. [online] Available at: [Accessed 12 February 2021].